Jewish World Review SEpt. 1, 2000 / 1 Elul, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE LAST TIME two New York baseball teams were in first place in the month of September was 1956. The latest the Yankees and Mets have both been in first place is this week. They made it as far as Aug. 21 last season. The Yankees stayed where they were after that. The Mets never made it back until Monday night, when Edgardo Alfonzo hit one out in the first inning at about the same time the Reds were smacking around Greg Maddux at Turner Field. New Yorkers have as much baseball season as they could ever want now, for as long as it lasts. Maybe they really will get to see Clemens against Piazza in October. Maybe it will even happen at Shea.
A Subway Series, the first since 1956, is the dream New York sports event and a nightmare for the rest of the country. Even as close as the Mets came last year, it always felt like a longshot, because they were trying to come back from 0-3 down against the Braves. It is a longshot no longer. Maybe it is the way to bet.
The Yankees start to pull away in the American League East. They should have done it a long time ago against the likes of the Red Sox and Blue Jays, both of whom seem to have already made their run. The Mets? They have their best shot at finishing in first place since they won 100 games in 1988 and were supposed to be on their way to the World Series until Mike Scioscia hit one off Dwight Gooden one Sunday night at Shea. Scioscia, and then Orel Hershiser, hit the Mets so hard that night it took them a decade to recover.
But they have. They weren't as good as the Braves last year, or the Yankees. This year they are. They have as much team as anybody in baseball. The Mets have 18 games left against teams with sub-.500 records. Then at the end of September they have those six games against Atlanta, three there and three here. Our baseball October will begin with those games. If the Mets are playing then the way they have been lately, they will finally beat the Braves out of first place. In the NL East, it will feel as if they found a way to beat Tiger Woods.
Home field in the playoffs can mean nothing, as the Braves could sure tell you. Home field ended up meaning nothing to the Diamondbacks last October. First place in the East doesn't mean the Mets automatically make it out of the first round, or automatically get the four wins in the NLCS they couldn't get off the Braves last year.
For the last month, the Mets have looked like the best team in baseball. They were hot for a long time last year, and then nearly blew the whole season at the end. They are better this year. You wondered how they would come back from the disappointment of Game 6 against the Braves at Turner Field. They have come back like champs, at least so far. We can talk as much as we want to about how the Braves have had their number in the past. Watching the Mets these days, you wonder how they could ever be afraid of anybody.
Maybe the Yankees finally will pick up some steam now, after more than 90 games of .500 baseball. They don't pitch the way they used to. They won't pitch that way again this season if Ramiro Mendoza isn't healthy. We remember all the saves from Mariano Rivera, all the important hits from Jeter and Bernie in the playoffs. Mendoza's right arm out of the bullpen has been as big a weapon for Joe Torre in October as anything he has. The Yankee-Red Sox series last year was closer than you think. In the end, Mendoza was the difference. You see how diminished the Yankees are without him.
So the Yankees are clearly less than they were a year ago. It probably won't matter in the American League, which sometimes feels like Little League. The Mets are more than they were a year ago. It matters a lot in the National League, where the best baseball is being played this season. It is why there have been such big chunks of the season when the Mets have been the New York team to watch, the way Mike Piazza has been the New York player to watch, and talk about.
On Sunday, Buck Showalter was talking about the home run Piazza hit on Saturday night. ``We thought no way he could hit a fastball up and in like that after a changeup away,'' Showalter said. ``So he hits a bomb.'' Showalter was informed that the home run wasn't even in Piazza's top 10 for the season. Even people who follow the game the way Showalter does, to the point of obsession, sometimes act as if they are seeing Piazza for the first time.
``You know what the most amazing thing of all is?'' Showalter said to the writers in his small office in the back of the visitors' clubhouse.
``He doesn't strike out,'' was the answer, as if from a chorus.
``No he does not,'' Showalter said, laughing.
He has been here a little over two years. It seems longer, because
he is that kind of star. But he has carried the Mets this far. There
are still 30 games to play. So much can happen. The Mets showed us
that last year. But they were in first this week and so were the
Yankees. The season we wanted is the one we are having. In that
season, we get to see Piazza dig in against Clemens, at least one more
time. In our dream season, we get our Subway Series at
JWR contributor Mike Lupica is author, most recently, of Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America. To comment, click here.
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